If creativity is your livelihood, is it a good idea to pursue multiple interests and develop a range of skills, or should you focus on one or two key talents and become the best around in your specialism?
I’m asking the question because two of my favourite blogs take completely opposite positions on this issue. In the red corner, Steve Hardy devotes his entire blog to the concept of the Creative Generalist, and recently wrote an excellent post about What Specifically Do Generalists Do?. In the blue corner, advertising copywriter Scamp has this to say about creative generalism:
the idea enrages me so much that every time it pops up I feel the need to reach for a hammer, like I’m playing a blogging version of whack-a-mole.
At the risk of getting whacked by Scamp’s hammer (and of mixing metaphors) I’m going to look at both sides of the question and see if I can referee the fight.
The Case for Creative Generalism
Photo by tjscenes
In his blog post What Specifically Do Generalists Do? Steve Hardy argues for the ‘secret talent’ of generalists:
Nothing can substitute for depth of analysis, and there’s proven value in specialization â€“ it’s what education, career paths, scientific research, and technological innovation are built on â€“ but generalism is a secret talent. With so much complex information, fragmented in so many ways and developing faster and faster, it is increasingly important to have generalists around to make sense of it all, of the big picture. People who appreciate diversity, who are in the know about the wider world and who understand how things interact are invaluable observers, matchmakers, and pioneers of the intersectional ideas so vital for success in todayâ€™s knowledge economy, conceptual age, and global community.
He then describes the lists the following ‘core areas at which Creative Generalists excel’:
- Wander & Wonder – finding possibility
- Synthesize & Summarize – presenting information
- Link & Leap – generating ideas
- Mix & Match – connecting people
- Experience & Empathize – understanding worldview
Among Steve’s eclectic curiosity interviewees is Russell Davies, whose blog exemplifies many of these characteristics of creative generalism. Russell also writes about creative generalism from time to time. One of the things I like about Russell’s blog is that you never know what you’re going to get next, from cashless telephone boxes to transport depots to the action cook book to electroplankton baths and ukulele mashup genius. He’s a kind of innovation antenna for the rest of us, investigating novel technology and attitudes and extrapolating trends and possibilities.
The poet W.B. Yeats wrote a moving elegy for his friend Major Robert Gregory, in which he praised the younger man as an artist, scholar and man of action:
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And all he did done perfectly
As though he had but that one trade alone.
As poetry, I love these lines, but I would say that (if Yeats can be believed) Major Gregory was an untypical generalist. Perfection of each kind is not usually what they are after, or what they deliver. They are more at home with the notebook or sketchpad (or these days the blog) than the marble plinth or three volume novel. Coleridge is a good example – described by his biographer Richard Holmes as ‘the great master of the suggestive fragment’, he has a restless, omnivorous imagination that flits, in the 6 volumes of his Notebooks, from poetry to journalism to philosophy to plans for an ideal society in the wilderness of America to recipes for beer to dreams to sexual fantasies to prayers to nature studies and the colour of urine in a chamber pot. Several of his greatest poems, such as ‘Kubla Khan’ and Christabel, were left unfinished.
Leonardo da Vinci was probably the ultimate creative generalist (or polymath or Renaissance man as they used to be known). As a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, botanist, writer and musician, he approached perfection in several disciplines – but also left his share of unfinished projects and suggestive fragments, such as the huge statue of a horse (‘Gran Cavallo’) that was never cast in bronze, or the unfinished paintings of St Jerome and the Adoration of the Magi. More recently, some of my favourite generalists include Mervyn Peake (novelist, poet, painter, illustrator, sculptor), Brian Eno (musician, producer, thinker, installation artist) and Thomas Heatherwick (designer, architect, engineer, sculptor).
If I’ve whetted your appetite for generalism, you might enjoy these two blogs I discovered while researching this post: Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist and The Martini Shaker. And Tim Ferriss’ Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades. Oh, and Leonardo’s finally got round to starting a blog.
The Case for Specialism
Photo by ceriseyyy
There’s a Japanese proverb that says if you try to chase two rabbits at once, you’ll lose both. Scamp is clearly of the ‘single rabbit’ school of thought and lists his Top 5 reasons why Specialism is better than Generalism. The thrust of his argument is that it’s rare to find someone who is able to perform well at a wide range of skills, just as Johann Cruyff was almost unique among footballers in being able to ‘defend, create goals and score goals’. He acknowledges that ‘great advertising requires different skills’ but says it’s better to assemble a team of diverse specialists than to try to find all of them in the same person.
Marcus Buckingham and Kurt Coffman make a similar point in their book First, Break All the Rules, where they argue that instead of trying to fix our weaknesses we should focus on developing our strongest talents. So for example, I could probably learn to play the guitar competently, but I don’t have my brother’s talent for music, so I’ll never achieve any great distinction at it – or experience the kind of satisfaction he gets from playing in a really good band. I’m better off concentrating on writing, which is something for which I have more talent and inclination. And less chance of being trounced by my little brother.
Scamp laid down the gauntlet to the champions of generalism in advertising:
Here’s my team of specialists – Johnny Hornby (CEO), Paul Feldwick (Head of Planning), Richard Flintham (ECD). Could anyone put up a team of three generalists, that would make a better agency than HFF? I doubt it.
That was 8 months ago and so far no-one has done it, which suggests he has a point.
Scamp receives staunch support from another advertising man, Winston Fletcher, in his book Tantrums and Talent – How to get the best from creative people:
In the creative industries specialisation of labour applies with a vengeance. Most creators, thought they may not realise it, have a narrow range of creative abilities. Feature writers rarely make good fictions writers; designers are quite different from illustrators; fashion photographers can’t shoot portraits; still photographers can’t shoot movies; in advertising few creators of press advertising are really good at television commercials…. one of my partners is an outstanding editor of comedy programmes. At a pinch he can edit anything – but he has an instinct for the timing of hilarious sequences.
(Tantrums and Talent, p.49)
Fletcher does acknowledge the existence of generalists, but like Scamp he sees them as the exception to the rule of creative specialisation:
There are exceptions, but they are so infrequent as to be noteworthy. Some of the most massively talented creative people – Sir Lawrence Olivier and Orson Welles spring to mind – have been able to master a wide range of disparate creative roles. Such multi-faceted talents are few and far between. The creative manager should almost always urge creators to keep to their last, and to excel at the things they do well, rather than allow them to try and be jacks-of-all-trades.
(Tantrums and Talent, p.49)
It’s worth checking out the comments on Scamp’s post, for a lively debate about the issue, including other footballers who can defend, create and score.
Dave Gray’s solution – generalists are best at defining problems, specialists at solving them
Image Â© Dave Gray, reproduced by kind permission
Dave Gray suggests that we should look at generalists and specialists as playing complementary roles in the creative process. Generalists have the breadth of knowledge to be able to survey the big picture and identify critical problems and goals, but they may not have the specialist knowledge to solve the problem or execute the plan.
It’s an appealing idea that seems to fit the traditional division of labour in advertising agencies between planners (strategic generalists who define the goal) and creatives (specialists who solve the problem with their creative execution). Maybe we can imagine a team including planner Russell Davies and his eclectic enthusiasms, and Scamp bringing his laser-like creative focus to the execution. I’d love to be a fly on the wall.
David Armano finds a ‘lot of truth’ in Dave Gray’s diagram, but suggests that the roles are not always so clearly defined:
Generalists can excel at both defining and solving problems but may require the assistance of specialists as they go deeper into execution. Specialists can excel in defining the problem especially when it falls within their area of expertise. Are we saying the same thing? I think the difference is stressing that both can actually function in the other’s “role” depending on the individual and context.
Coming back to advertising as an example, it’s not hard to detect both sides resisting the straitjacket of their roles, with cheeky planners wondering whether they are the new creatives and awkward creatives challenging the creative briefs that planners work so hard on. Having said that, I think Dave’s diagram does a good job of clarifiying the essential differences between generalists and specialists, and their complementary functions.
So come on then, which is better?
Image by Steve Hardy
As usual with this kind of debate, I can see the merits of both sides. The world would be a poorer place without the Leonardos, Coleridges, Heatherwicks, Davies and Peakes dipping their fingers into as many pies as they can. Equally, I wouldn’t want to stop Scamp haring after his rabbit.
To get myself off the charge of sitting on the fence, I’m tempted to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’ But I’ll resist the temptation.
Instead I’ll quote Steve Hardy again, who sees generalists and specialists as ‘two sides of the same coin’:
the best fireworks are generated when the two approaches are somehow blended–in either an individual’s mindset or in an organization’s structure–and arranged to work together in concert.
To me, ‘creative generalist or specialist?’ is a false dichotomy. Apart from the argument that the two roles are complementary, the question assumes that ‘creative’ is an easily identifiable, homogenous quality. It isn’t. It can be applied to all kinds of activities, disciplines and professions, some of which are better suited to generalists, some specialists.
A third way? David Armano’s T-shaped Creativity
Image by David Armano
The notion is simple – cultivate people on your team that have a core competency, but can easily branch out (like the shape of a T). They ideally possess traits such as curiosity, empathy and arenâ€™t afraid to ask why. And there is a distinction between this type of individual vs. a â€œjack-of-all trades.â€ The core competency and branches are complimentary, with the branches being secondary strengths. It represents breadth and depth of skills.
In terms of an individual’s skill-set, the vertical stroke comprises specialist skills and knowledge, while the horizontal stroke represents the generalist skills that enable the person to position their specialism in a way that it is useful and desirable for others. We can see this as a variation of the classic definition of creativity as novelty + value. The novel element derives from the vertical stroke of the T – which David labels ‘creative driven’, comprising insights, ideas and concepts. The horizontal stroke of the T is concerned with value – whether the new ideas and products are useful and/or desirable. At the intersection of the T a useable end product.
For example: my own core specialisms (the vertical stroke of the T) are:
- facilitating change (as a coach, trainer or therapist)
In order to make these skills relevant, attractive and useful to others, while working as an independent consultant, I’ve developed some knowledge and competence in the following areas, which comprise the horizontal stroke of the T:
- presentation skills
- intellectual property law
- organisation theory
- project management
- time management
One reason I took time out to study for an MA in Creative & Media Enterprises was to broaden my knowledge of the creative industries sector so that I could position my core skills in a way that would be meaningful to my clients. At a basic level, this means clients feel comfortable when they find I can ‘speak their language’ and have some understanding of the challenges they face. I would definitely say that studying for the MA broadened my mind – at the same time it was something of a relief to return to my own writing afterwards, and to get back to working with clients face-to-face.
I never knowingly pass up an opportunity to compare myself to Shakespeare, so I’ll wheel him on as my next example. It’s hard to think of anyone with a greater specialist talent for writing, or who achieved more with such a talent (the vertical stroke of the T). Yet he was also a competent actor and a highly successful businessman as a partner in the acting company The King’s Men (the horizontal stroke). The various aspects of his career were not in conflict, but created a dynamic creative tension that led to enormous creative and professional success.
The T-shaped model suggests that we are all generalists and specialists to some degree. Some people will have a longer vertical stroke, others a wider cross stroke, with many variations of size and proportion. (No sniggering at the back, please.) The most wide-ranging generalist will usually have one or two favourite specialisms at which s/he excels; and even the most committed specialist will need some grasp of other disciplines if s/he wants to achieve recognition and rewards. Scamp recently blogged about starting to work as a creative director – a role that requires new skills, as a facilitator of others’ creativity, helping them catch their own rabbits.
How about you?
- Do you consider yourself a creative generalist or specialist? Why?
- How has generalising or specialising helped or hindered you?
- Would you assign separate roles to generalists and specialists?